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A Thousand Fates: The afterlife of medieval monasteries in England and Wales by Richard H. Taylor

05 May 2023

Notes and illustrations are a welcome record, says William Whyte

“MAN without learning and the remembrance of things past falls into a beastly sottishness”, the 17th-century scholar Sir William Dugdale once observed. Determined not to forget the achievements of the monasteries, abbeys, and convents of the medieval age, he and a handful of others sought to amass material that would pass on this history to “posterity”.

Volume one of their Monasticon Anglicanum was published in 1655. It sold badly and so, “as a punishment to an ungrateful world”, the second volume did not appear until 1661. But it was and remains an extraordinary achievement. Working in the run-up to the Civil War, Dugdale and his collaborators scoured the country, seeking to recover and reveal fragments of the monastic past.

On a smaller scale, this beautifully produced new book does something similar. Like the Monasticon, it is not a continuous narrative, but a collection of notes on different religious houses. Some are very short — the Franciscan Friary in Lincoln, for instance, rates only two sentences. Others, like the exemplary little history of Hailes Abbey, last several pages. Of the one thousand institutions lost at the Reformation, it covers about ten per cent.

It is not, I suspect, a book to be read in one go, but, rather, one that should be dipped into and sampled. Some chapters look at how monasteries were transformed into churches, houses, colleges, and much besides. Others are organised thematically. There are interesting sections on how antiquaries, archaeologists, and other enthusiasts sought to uncover the histories of individual convents. There is even a concluding chapter on those Roman Catholics who attempted to rebuild monastic life in Aylesford Priory, Buckfast Abbey, Minster, Clare, and Prinknash.

Beautifully illustrated and filled with intriguing stories, A Thousand Fates wears its learning lightly. But it is clearly based on very wide reading and draws on some very recent research. It certainly deserves to do far better than the first volume of Dugdale’s Monasticon. With a useful gazetteer at the end, it will surely also encourage others to search out the monasteries, abbeys, and convents that were so radically changed by the Reformation.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Oxford, and Professor of Social and Architectural History in the University of Oxford.



A Thousand Fates: The afterlife of medieval monasteries in England and Wales
Richard H. Taylor
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